Beauty buzz: Brush up on sonics

How did a scientist who was working on an Aids vaccine go on to create the Clarisonic? Vickie Maye talks to the facial cleanser inventor, Dr Robb Akridge.

The five men would meet in a low-key US diner. They would surround themselves with growth charts, looking at industries that were on the up; home appliances, anything.

Their plan? To create a new product, and launch it on the market within two years.

And before it was even developed, they had an exit strategy in place, right down to the sales target they would hit before the company would be sold on.

Ambitious? Yes. Crazy? It could have been.

Except that these men were all scientists and engineers, top of their field — the one who brought them all together was one of the primary inventors of the Sonicare toothbrush.

Skincare was big business. So they spoke to the experts. What was the industry missing?

Acne was the recurring response. That, they decided, would be their product. Within two years, the Clarisonic was born.

There were prototypes, dodgy looking ones.

“I was the guinea pig,” laughs Dr Robb Akridge, one of those five men and today very much the face and voice of Clarisonic. 

Beauty buzz: Brush up on sonics

He’s speaking to me from his offices in Seattle. Before, the bristles there were steel bars. And in case you didn’t guess, steel bars pinch.

Not quite the spa experience of the Clarisonic of today, but the theory behind it remains the same. 

Instead of cleansing tools that spin or rotate, potentially damaging the skin, Dr Robb and his team had the brush oscillate, moving back and forth with the skin’s natural elasticity, more than 300 times per second.

Pores were, to all intents and purposes, shaken, flushed and cleaned out, ready to absorb products properly, drinking up the benefits. But back to those prototypes. Five women, all skincare professionals, were handed the various models.

“Usually they threw them back at me.” There’s that Dr Robb laugh again. “But that’s what we wanted.” Brutal honesty.

When one of the testers asked to keep it a few days longer, they knew they were on a winner.

It launched in 2004 — and there was steady growth.

Then Oprah declared it one of her “favourite things” in 2007. It would change everything. Clarisonics sold out.

Oprah would be the first of many celebrities devoted to the product. Courtney Cox, Cameron Diaz — today, the list goes on.

Dr Robb admits in those early years he was no skincare expert (today you could ask him pretty much any dermatological question and he’d have the answer).

He started off in immunology, working on experimental Aids vaccines before going to work as a senior scientist with the Sonicare toothbrush, (sonic technology he would bring to the Clarisonic).

The big question though, and the one everyone asked me when I said I was about to talk to Dr Robb, was, does it work? Is it worth the investment?

It certainly doesn’t come cheap. The latest model, the Smart Profile, launching September 1, comes with a €249 price tag.

It’s smarter, easier, and more powerful, the press release states — and every word of that is true.

Where other Clarisonics were said to clean six times better than what we can do at home with our hands or a cloth, the Smart Profile cleanses 11 times deeper (though Dr Robb warns me not to get hung up on figures such as these — how the skin looks and feels afterwards is key, he says, and everyone is different). It comes with a body brush and the pedi brush can also be used on this device.

The biggest innovation really is the movement of the microchip, or the “brain”, from the handle to the brush head.

This means the facial brush, timed for 20 seconds on the forehead, 20 on the nose and chin, and 10 each on either cheek (it beeps to tell you when to change position), will give deeper cleanse where it’s needed.

And still this isn’t enough for Dr Robb. Scientists at Clarisonic are still striving to do more — he wants a brush that will eventually tell the user how deep to cleanse based on the feel of the skin alone. It’ll come, says Dr Robb, all in good time.

I’d heard about the Clarisonic but my interest was really piqued at a beauty shoot with Lancome’s Elite make-up artist Team Leader, Shehla Shaikh, earlier this summer. 

(Lily James and Sienna Miller are just two of the celebs who regularly request her to do their make-up.)

As she worked on our model, I asked her for her top tip. She didn’t miss a beat. “The Clarisonic,” she said, without hesitation. The most expensive make up products are wasted without the right skincare regime, she said, and the Clarisonic is the only way to get a proper, deep cleanse.

“It transformed my skin quickly quickly,” she says,” and my make up goes on like a dream.”

So back to the big question. Does it work. The answer is, yes. A resounding yes. I did, however, experience the “purge”. 

My skin broke out a little during the first week of use. It’s no different to what can happen after a facial, explained Dr Robb — the impurities are being flushed out, exiting to the skin’s surface. 

It didn’t last, and truth be told, in a strange way I was happy, as it showed the Clarisonic was working.

And the impact on my skin was immediate — it was smoother and softer to the touch. Dr Robb says it has anti-ageing benefits, removing dead skin, reducing pores and fine lines. I ask him for his top tips on using the Clarisonic. The trick, he says, is lots of cleanser.

This is supposed to be a spa experience, after all. Enjoy the indulgence. And use lots of water (the product is waterproof). 

Clean the brushes regularly (use a bit of shampoo if you want), and change them roughly every three months (the Smart Profile will tell you when your time is up).

I ask him for the biggest mistakes Clarisonic users make.

There was one person, he tells me, who held the device away from the face, in the belief the sonic waves might magically reach the skin. And there’s that infectious Dr Robb laugh again.

The Clarisonic Smart Profile launches September 1, €249


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